November 14, 2005

Catching up with recipients of free Linux CDs

Author: Nathan Willis

We give free Linux CDs to our friends, coworkers, even strangers, but in many cases we never find out what happens to them after they leave our hands. Recently I decided to look up several people I've given free Linux CDs to and ask them what happened, what they liked and didn't like, and whether they are using Linux.

Specifically, two months ago I gave away eight sets of Ubuntu 5.04 CD sets to a group of personal friends of varying ages, professional backgrounds, and levels of computer experience. Ubuntu CD sets come for three architectures (i386, PowerPC, and AMD64), and each set contains one live CD for experimentation and one install CD for after the recipient is convinced to take the plunge. They're professionally packaged, look nice, and Ubuntu's corporate sponsor Canonical Ltd. will ship as many as you want to your front door, free of charge.

In no way does this represent a scientific survey; my friends don't come close to being statistically representative of the world at large (or even of West Texas, where I live, for that matter). Nevertheless, listening to the good and the bad from each of their stories has proven valuable to me, and at times surprising.


At the times I offered them CDs, some people took i386 CDs only, and several took both i386 and PowerPC sets. Interestingly enough, everyone was already aware of Linux, which certainly was not the case in years past. We talked briefly about what Linux was and was not, and about the relationship between Linux and the various distributions.

Most of the group was skeptical about the fact that the CDs I gave them were absolutely free of charge and absolutely legal, but when I described Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth and his wacky-billionaire personality, that somehow made it seem more plausible.

About half the group said that they had an old laptop that was no longer capable of running Windows smoothly, and they wanted to breathe new life into it. That's significant because people keep old laptops around far longer than they do desktop machines, a distinction that I do not see any Linux distribution capitalizing on.

I was a bit surprised at the enthusiasm for trying a new operating system; the prevailing wisdom in the Linux community is that your average Joe is reluctant to try something different. One couple (who had heard of Linux beforehand) asked, "What can it do?", to which I replied, "The same things that any other computer system can do." Maybe after a few paid updates to Windows, you start to realize that all operating systems let you do the same tasks in more or less the same way.

Of course, that was two months ago. What you really want to hear about is now.

L-Day plus 60

Out of the group of eight, I managed to track down five and ask what their Linux experience had been. One (a married couple leaving for work overseas in a few months) had taken the CDs home and promptly forgotten about them. They were motivated by curiosity, not necessity, and have a lot of big changes to plan for in the coming weeks.

Another recipient (again, a married couple, one in graduate school and one working) had tried the live CDs but had not done the permanent install. This pair was among the group looking to breathe new life into an old laptop and among those who had taken i386 and PowerPC sets. They did not have any trouble with the laptop, but lost interest in the "breathing new life into it" project and simply purchased a new machine.

I'd say that this is common behavior; if the biggest selling point of Linux is that it will extend the life of old hardware, market share will be hard to win. We all know that hardware prices move in one direction only (down), and in the days of $100 PCs, old hardware is more easily forgotten than restored.

Take subject number three, for instance. He's a creative type, also armed with a dusty old Intel laptop and a Mac. The laptop ran the live CD without incident, but its owner never bothered to attempt the full hard disk install. When I asked why, he replied that he didn't feel like he had the time to devote to it. The time, I thought? As with the others, I offered to answer any questions, but got a polite decline. He said he may give it a try somewhere down the line if we happen to both be in town at the same time, but otherwise ... he has work to do and the old laptop just isn't worth the effort.

Neither of these friends wanted to install Linux on their PowerPC systems, a fact in line with my other experiences with other Mac users. I'm sure there are many who attribute this to the superior experience and application bundling of OS X, but from talking with them I think there is another factor -- setting up dual booting on a Mac is a far more difficult task than on a Windows machine. Most Mac owners don't know how the OS is installed because they have not had to restore a system on their own, they have never even heard of partitioning, and when they look into the process, it frequently requires them to back up their files to external hardware.

The fourth contestant is another graduate student, one currently spending as much time procrastinating and as little time writing his thesis as possible. Perhaps due to these factors, he went ahead and plunged into the full install. Almost immediately I began to receive questions from him. Some were technical in nature, such as how much to allocate for the different hard disk partitions and what on earth NDISwrapper was. But others were more tactical, such as "Should I install GNOME or KDE? Which one is better?"

This was a good sign; for as much flak as the free software world gives itself over this kind of argument, whenever you hear a neophyte ask the question, it means he is taking the system seriously and hasn't been scared away. For the record, my advice to the neophyte in question was to install both systems (of course), and start working with GNOME. Why GNOME? Because I use GNOME, and since I will be the ad-hoc tech support desk for my friend, he will be better off if I can answer his questions.

In fact, that is the best answer to give anyone when faced with a "which environment" or "which distro" question. Rather than attempt to make the answer technical, think about the support system. Don't send a new user off with a Fedora package if you yourself run SUSE, because you will be stranding him without a lifeline.

This new user unfortunately suffered a hard drive failure and had to start over from scratch. He emailed and asked me what could have caused it, worried, I believe, that he had done something wrong in the Linux installation process. It gave me an opportunity to explain what little I know about disk partitioning, and along the way I commented that Windows installations can be difficult and confusing too -- it's just that for the vast majority of the populace, they never have to do it themselves.

He replied that he had been through a Windows install before, and though he didn't enjoy it the main difference he saw was that the Linux installation was forcing him to learn more about his computer. At this, I felt as if I should say something in defense of Linux, but to my surprise he interrupted and said that, no, he wanted to learn more about his computer, and in fact was looking forward to being less mystified at how the expensive device operated.

My fifth friend also installed Linux, and is apparently still using it. As with contestant four, he was not shy about calling me with questions and problems. I did not get to talk with him in nearly as much depth, but that appears to be because he has had fewer problems. I chalk that up in part to his desktop hardware, which is more standardized and less prone to quirks than any of the laptops assaulted during the other installs. Though not a computer programmer by any means, he took to modifying text configuration files relatively quickly, and within a couple of weeks the only questions I got were about application recommendations and about Linux vendors in general.

Closing thoughts

Of course, history does not end at the two-month mark. Sixty days from now, all or none of these people could be using Linux full-time. But by following up on them now, I have come away with some new insights about Linux and its perception among lay people.

For one, support is everything. Although I offered my help to everyone who took a CD set, everyone who wanted one also wanted to know who to call if "something went wrong" -- even the people who never bothered to try out the live CDs.

Second, don't underestimate people's willingness to try and learn new things. Mind you, I'm not saying that the "what would Grandma do" logic that is so prevalent in user interface discussions is misplaced -- just don't go into the conversation assuming that Grandma is senile. You may drive her away by keeping the Linux world shadowy and impenetrable.

So my record, as it stands today, is two out of five, with a couple of maybes. What about the rest of you? Have you followed up on the Linux CDs that you give away? What's happened? Post your experiences below.


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